For Halloween 2003, Harris is dealing with the effects of Hurricane Isabel. Downed trees have forced him to put his hayride and storytelling attraction on hold. Instead, he’s focused on “Scream Forest.”
But maybe this year will bring better results. It’s the attraction’s 13th year. And in Halloween parlance, that’s about as lucky as you can get.
The mission: Do whatever it takes to scare die-hard Halloween enthusiasts. “They’re the toughest people for us to scare,” Harris explains. “If we get adult males, then we’re going to get everyone else.”
You don’t do that with peeled-grape “eyeballs,” black-plastic haunted houses or people yelling “Boo!” You do it with performers who have been to “Haunt School,” with psychological scaring strategies, animatronics, special effects, and blood and guts.
With its roots in Jaycee-organized haunts and charity events, Harris says, the haunt industry has changed in the last 20 years. “With liability insurance, and with what the public expects these days,” he says, “the bar is raised so much that it has to be a professional production company almost” to be successful.
Professionally, the business seems to be getting more serious. To beef up its presence, The International Association of Haunted Attractions last month formed an alliance with the 5,600-member, Alexandria-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. We’re talking PR. Trade shows. Government lobbying.
At Creepy Hollow Hayride, the work starts in March, with the construction of sets in the woods where creatures can pop out of nowhere.
“It’s a big production,” says Harris, who purchased the haunted woods attraction with his brother, David, six years ago. “It’s like running any small business. We have labor, we’re hiring people, we have staffing issues, we have training issues.” For that, he uses “Haunt School,” where he can teach industry staples — makeup, masks, scare tactics, safety and dealing with people.
Then the real fun begins. For $13, you are trucked down to the edge of the woods where you enter a forest designed to make your skin crawl.
A lifelike man is strung in a tree by his feet, tied with rope, blindfolded and writhing to the sounds of painful moans. A performer in “Joe’s Barbecue” (Tip: It’s not pulled-pork) is hacking away at a cutting board covered with body parts, while a woman nearby — whose left arm is actually missing from the elbow down — is sprawled out and bloody. A finale house that includes a young man brandishing a chain saw, making sparks fly against an aluminum wall — then chasing you — includes a “chicken trail” so that people with low scare tolerances can avoid it altogether.
One such woman is doing just that on a recent Thursday night. “I need a cigarette,” she says, out of breath.
“We design the event so that you have intense scares, and you have periods where they can calm down,” Harris says. That builds suspense and allows for distractions — the best way to scare someone. “A lot of times their imagination is the scariest thing out here,” Harris says, doing a walk-through before an early group arrives.
“It’s a blast,” he says. “Our staff loves it because they get to step out of their normal lives.” There is Jason Bott, a tree-trimmer, who has worked here 13 years, and Stephen Bortowski, an architect by day, black-caped ghoul by night.
He’s a mortgage broker. But it’s Halloween that really gets him going. “No matter how hard of a day you’ve had,” he says wryly, “taking a chain saw to a group of kids is a stress-reliever.” S
Scream Forest, which also offers concessions, a bonfire and “Zombie Paintball” runs through Nov. 1. Open 7-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7-midnight Friday and Saturday. Tickets $13, $10 with online coupon. www.creepyhollowhayride.com. 752-6992.
For more Halloween events, see the Night & Day section.
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